This Summer Movie Season I did the unthinkable, I sat through yet another highly disappointing Transformers movie (Transformers: The Last Knight). After viewing the fifth installment of the cinematic franchise, I was left wondering, how did these movies go so wrong so fast? Why do I even care if the movies are bad or not? Why does anyone outside of boys aged 3-10 care? Then the answer hit me in a wave of 1980s nostalgia, it's the reason I got sucked into Transformers in the first place, Transformers: The Movie (1986).
As a kid growing up in the 1980s watching afterschool and Saturday morning Cartoons was a right of passage. After the action figure craze that Star Wars created in late seventies and early eighties every cartoon marketed to young children had the sole purpose of selling toys, with every child(myself included) delighted that we could play out the adventures of our heroes and our villains on our living room floors. No company capitalized on this business model better than Hasbro, who brought G.I. Joe and Transformers alive on our television screen intent on introducing new characters on a weekly basis, and releasing the figure shortly thereafter at the toy stores. No series captured the attention of young boys quite like the Transformers did as we watched Cars, Planes and Trains transform into giant alien robots that battled each other in their attempts to return to their home planet. The genius of the cartoon is that anything could be a Transformer, and any kid with a great imagination could pretend that everything was a Transformer. After two seasons of the television series and countless toys sold Transformers: The Movie was produced to transition the series into its' third season with a whole new roster of characters. The film itself is one of the most underrated animated films of the 1980s and was the moment many kids, myself included, graduated from hokey after school cartoons to more sophisticated fare. It still remains the best Transformers movie to date.
So what makes the 1986 Animated so great? Here are my top five reasons Transformers: The Movie is the best Transformers movie:
- The Cast: The voice cast for the animated film was pretty good. Aside from series regulars Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime and legendary Frank Welker as Megatron and a bevy of other characters, Judd Nelson in all his 80s glory starred as Hot Rod, Leonard Nimoy voiced Galvatron, and lastly Orson Welles in his final film role provided the voice of the penultimate villain Unicron. These actors as well as the many I didn't list here, because the list is far too long, helped bring these characters to life in a way that captured our imagination. You heard the excitement, tension and desperation the characters faced in the performance of the voice actors. You couldn't help but root for these characters to succeed at every turn, and yes that also included Galvatron blasting Starscream to bits to reclaim leadership of the Decepticons.
- The Body Count: Right from the start of the movie you knew that every character was in jeopardy and that the stakes were high. Habro and writer Ron Friedman were not afraid of taking out series favorites, and ultimately this decision would affect another Hasbro Animated Feature, G.I. Joe the movie(G.I. Joe Commander Duke is left in a coma rather than killed) due to the backlash received after Optimus Prime was killed in the movie. Yet the deaths of so many of the series regulars is part of what makes the movie great. There are casualties in War and we had a front row seat to see the death and damage caused in the civil war between Cybertron's two adversarial forces. It also led to the next generation of Transformers, which is something we've yet to see in Michael Bay films in which we continue to get Optimus Prime saving the world against "insurmountable" odds. Since so much of the carnage occurs in the first third of the movie, as an audience we truly don't know how the rest of the movie is going to turn out or whether everyone is going to survive and that left many a viewer tense until the conclusion of the film.
- The Soundtrack: It's not just the songs compiled, but rather how they were used that makes the soundtrack great and in turn help to make the movie great. Case in point is Optimus Prime's arrival to Autobot city in tune to Stan Bush's "the touch" not only does it fit perfectly to the action on the screen, but it also helped the scene at to the Mystique surrounding Optimus Prime and later in the film would queue Hot Rod his successor as leader of the Autobots. The mix of 80s hair band rock and Vince Dicola's compositions really help convey the mood of each scene and help add the perfect amount of tension.
- The Villain: Unicron has been and always will remain the single greatest threat to Cybertron, Earth, Autobots and Decepticons alike in Transformers lore. Ultimately this is where I thought the live action Michael Bay movies would be headed, but have never technically reached. Although they've hinted at Unicron in Transformers: The Last Knight, and given us vehicles that bear a resemblance to Unicron in Transformers: Age of Extinction we still haven't gotten Unicron in a live action Transformers movie. Unicron is the ultimate menace, a planet sized, planet eating Transformer who can only be defeated by the power of the Autobot Matrix of Leadership. The ultimate in evil defeated by a mystical relic with power for good, its simple storytelling that has been told time and again executed perfectly in the Animated film, and it's something that continues to elude Bay and his screenwriters. Unicron voiced by Orson Welles is nothing short of brilliant, and provides a true powerful and commanding presence that bends the series' former ultimate bad guy Megatron(Galvatron) to his will.
- No Michael Bay: Okay so this is obviously a cheat, but in the sphere of Modern Film Franchises, everything that Michael Bay has touched is pretty terrible. The first Transformers movie under Bay has its moments, but the franchise has gotten worse with each added installment. The movies are plagued by nonsensical storylines that have zero continuity and are highlighted by fight sequences that tend to be impossible to follow. One can only hope that if Paramount decides to continue with the Franchise, that the studio will eventually opt for a reboot with a new director at the helm.
We can only hope the Cinematic Franchise gets a much needed reboot,if not for the fans, perhaps due to the declining American Box Office. Until then I'll keep getting my Transformers fix via reruns and repeated viewings of Transformers: The Movie (1986).